Qualcomm has announced RF360, a solution that solves one of the biggest hurdles for LTE handset makers and customers: the need to build multiple versions of the same handset to address one of the many (40+) LTE bands worldwide. Interestingly, Qualcomm did a good job of keeping this a secret, since the company hinted before that a solution to it may take a long time to appear. For instance, the iPhone 5 comes in 3 versions (Model A1428, A1429 GSM, A1429 CDMA) and the Galaxy S3 has multiple versions as well (including a Qualcomm-powered one). For the traveler, this meant that LTE will not be available outside of their home market, because each carrier uses different frequencies, and even within a local market (US: Sprint, Verizon, AT&T), LTE roaming may not be available. You may care even if you do not travel because the different hardware flavors delay smartphones availability in smaller markets or for smaller carriers. It also fragments the smartphone support (different hardware) and finally, it makes building those phones more expensive to build, design and update. Qualcomm RF360 at offering a technical solution that would allow handset makers to build a single hardware design to address every (or most) LTE markets.
Why was there a problem to start with?
It all started with something simple: there is a spectrum crunch (spectrum = radio frequencies, or bands) worldwide due to the proliferation of wireless services. On top of that, governments worldwide saw an opportunity to make a quick buck (in the Billions) by licensing spectrums to carriers worldwide and so they did… Unfortunately, the random spectrum availability (each country has its own “radio” history) and the lack of worldwide coordination led to today’s situation where LTE is operated on more than 40 bands worldwide. The original GSM and 3G bands are widely used in the world, and this is why your phones would most likely work in most GSM countries. Also, WiFi is a brilliant example of how using the same band worldwide makes technology affordable and available.
Using data over LTE has two main distinct steps: 1/ receive the signal 2/ process the signal. Step #2 is mostly done in the digital domain, so that’s more or less the same thing for all phones. Step #1 is an “analog” issue as each band needs specific hardware (radio front-end that handle the radio waves as they come in). The problem is that support for each band does take a bit of room on a smartphone motherboard, and after supporting a handful, there is simply no more space. By integrating the radio front-end in a tiny chip, Qualcomm enables the addition of wider front-end radio support, therefore making LTE handsets compatible with more (if not all) worldwide bands. The problem was “space” and basically “integration” into a small chip solves that.
If it works as advertised, Qualcomm’s RF360 solution solves one of the most intricate problem linked to LTE smartphones worldwide. Handset makers get an easier path to supporting their products worldwide, and costumers can hope to get handset faster, especially if they live in countries with LTR bands that are different from the ones in big markets like the USA or select European and Asian countries.
Finally, the integration of those once external components into a small chip help improves the smartphone designs by liberating space, reducing power consumption and inter-components communications speed. Someone once told me that to make money, you need to solve someone else’s problem: this look like a great example of that principle.